7 Factors That Can Lead To Leaky Gut + What To Do About Each

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In this piece, functional medicine practitioner William Cole, DC, explains the factors that can contribute to leaky gut. To learn more, check out his mindbodygreen course The Elimination Diet: A 60-Day Protocol to Uncover Food Intolerances, Heal the Gut, and Feel Amazing.

More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, noted that "All disease begins in the gut." Today, science is catching up with antiquity.

Research suggests that many chronic and autoimmune diseases have roots in gastrointestinal problems. A large part of that research is centered around damage to the intestine's protective lining, or what's called leaky gut syndrome. That's when an increase in the permeability of the gut lining allows bacterial toxins and undigested food particles to pass through into the bloodstream. This intestinal breach can cause inflammation cascades throughout the body and even trigger chronic and autoimmune diseases.

I've found that many people, after I run labs looking for gut lining permeability, want to know how the problem began in the first place. Here are seven common ways you could get leaky gut syndrome:

1. Diet

The foods we eat will either help or hurt our gut health. Processed and sugary foods, devoid of nutrients, could lead to the damage of your intestinal lining.

There's also evidence that in some people, gluten can cause inflammation to the gut and increase permeability. This is one of the potential triggers of gut problems and systemic inflammation in the body.

Research also suggests that alcohol can increase gut-lining permeability.

What to do: An elimination diet is a great way to uncover which foods aren't working for your body and start healing your gut. I go over the plan in detail in my mindbodygreen course.

2. Medications

Every medication has side effects. It amazes me how many people take medications every day and don't know what the side effects are. NSAIDs—common pain relievers such as ibuprofen—antibiotics, and antacids have all been implicated in increased intestinal inflammation and permeability.

What to do: Whenever possible, use natural alternatives that won't damage your body. Curcumin, for example, is a great natural anti-inflammatory. Consult with your doctor before changing any medications.

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3. Microbiome imbalances

Chronic gut infections and overgrowths of yeast or bacteria can contribute to low-grade, systemic inflammation and lead to leaky gut syndrome.

It's important to note that you don't have to be experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms to have these underlying microbiome problems. You may be experiencing symptoms in other systems in your body and not be feeling anything in your gut.

What to do: Probiotics are one of my favorite tools for assisting in balancing the microbiome. A combination of bifidobacteria, enterococcus and lactobacillus has been shown to have a positive effect on small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and IBS symptoms.

4. Hormone imbalances

Hormonal dysfunctions involving estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid, and cortisol have all been linked to a lowered intestinal healing time, which could lead to increased gut permeability.

What to do: Correcting the hormonal dysfunctions through functional medicine can stop the offense to the gut. Here are the labs to have run if you think hormonal issues might be at play.

5. Stress

Stress affects your health in many different ways. Many of my patients noticed their health declining during a difficult time in their life. And even the things we may overlook, like poor sleep or overtraining at the gym, can be stressful to the body.

Chronically high cortisol levels, suppressed secretory IgA (your gut's immune system), and decreased oxygen to your gut are all possible ways that stress can damage your gut.

What to do: Consistent mindfulness meditation and yoga are some of my favorite stress-reducing tools.

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6. Autoimmune disease

The majority of your immune system is found in your microbiome. Gut permeability could be seen as both a trigger to autoimmune conditions as well as an effect of the runaway inflammation that autoimmune conditions bring to the body.

Autoimmune diseases lead to increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and nitric oxide, which can destroy intestinal tight junction proteins and contribute to leaky gut syndrome. This is the inflammation storm that is so common with autoimmune spectrum problems.

What to do: There is no cure for autoimmune diseases, but you can help naturally balance the immune system and manage the condition. I talk about the topic of inflammation and balancing nitric oxide in my post How Improving Brain Health Boosts Your Immunity.

7. Blood sugar problems

According to some estimates, 40 percent of Americans will develop diabetes at some point in their lives. This metabolic disease can harm the gastrointestinal system. Advanced glycation end products, AGEs, are harmful compounds that are increased in chronic diseases like diabetes and have the potential to damage the intestinal tight junctions.

What to do: Natural medicines such as alpha-lipoic acid, chromium, and cinnamon are some of my favorite blood sugar stabilizers.

What to do if you think you might have leaky gut:

One way to find out if you might have leaky gut syndrome is to have a blood test run to measure antibodies.

  • Zonulin and Occludin Antibodies: These are the proteins that govern gut permeability. Antibodies could indicate damage to the intestinal tight junctions.
  • Actomyosin Antibodies: This could indicate there was destruction of healthy gut lining.
  • Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) Antibodies: LPS are bacterial endotoxins in your gut. If antibodies are found in blood this could indicate leaky gut syndrome.

Now what? This is when the work begins. Because every case is different and leaky gut syndrome can cause many different factors throughout the body, there are no quick fixes or magic pills. Generally speaking, I typically use natural medicines like L-glutamine and bone broth to heal the gut. Discuss with your doctor what might work best for you.

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